1879 - 1965
oil on canvas
signed and on verso signed and titled and dated 1924 on a label
28 x 36 in 71.1 x 91.4 cm
Estimate: $30,000 - $50,000
Preview at: Heffel Toronto – 13 Hazelton Ave
G. Blair Laing Limited, Toronto
Private Collection, Ontario
Some 70 kilometres southeast of Algonquin Provincial Park, Combermere straddles the Madawaska River. In the 1920s the river was still used for log drives, the “dreaming melody” of its waters having long since been turned into “a roaring chant of commercial conquest” (according to Maclean’s in 1922). Peter Clapham Sheppard often painted the rapids and falls of Algonquin and Muskoka, as well as the autumn leaf colour of their woods. However, on a 1924 painting expedition in the area, he was struck by a different and possibly unexpected sight near Combermere: farmhands forking hay onto a horse-drawn cart—the kind of harvest scene that marked the culmination of the summer, and which epitomized pastoral life.
Harvests, haymaking, haystacks and hay carts have a long and distinguished history in painting, from illustrated calendars in medieval books of hours to an illustrious roll call of masters that includes Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, John Constable, Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. Such scenes often represented the spectacle of man working in harmony with nature through the cycle of seasons, redeeming his fallen condition through hard and honest effort.
For Sheppard, the interest lay in the rich visual qualities of the ritual. Haying, Combermere combines two of his favourite motifs. First, masculine physical labour such as he depicted in his studies of the construction of Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct, done a decade earlier, as well as the stevedores and longshoremen painted during his visit to New York City in 1923. Second, sway-backed beasts of burden placidly awaiting the onset of their tasks, as seen in his many paintings of cabstands in Montreal. In fact, within the same year he painted Early Snow, Montreal, a street scene of a horse-drawn cart stacked with hay in the middle of a blizzard. This latter work appeared at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1925 and again two years later at the Exposition d’art canadien at the Musée du Jeu de Paume, in Paris, offering Sheppard valuable international exposure.
In Haying, Combermere, these two motifs leave the streets and docksides to come together in a pastoral landscape. Sheppard’s real pictorial enthusiasm lies in the sweeping contours of the mown field and, especially, in the masses of hay. Thickly and energetically painted, the hay completely engulfs the cart in a golden storm of almost abstract patterning, dwarfing the labourers and even the horses, whose stolid stances anchor the painting.
Haying, Combermere is a beautiful and accomplished study in complementary colours. The warm yellows and ochres of the field contrast with the line of scrubby, spectral trees arching through the background: a series of barbed silhouettes vigorously painted in violets and mauves with licks of fiery red-orange. Sheppard chose to omit the grove of trees—seen in his on-the-spot-charcoal sketches and a pencil and watercolour study—in order to maintain and emphasize this rich contrast.
Labeled as one of the “youngsters and experimenters” at the Ontario Society of Artists exhibition in 1927, Sheppard was part of the generation of painters who challenged the outworn orthodoxies of the Canadian artistic establishment to investigate more advanced and compelling idioms. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he was refreshingly versatile in his subject matter, turning his curious and easily enchanted gaze to the rich panoply of twentieth-century life—including this timeless scene of rural activity.
We thank Ross King, author of Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, for contributing the above essay.
1. Charles Christopher Jenkins, “J. R. Booth—On the Job at 95,” Maclean’s, May 15, 1922, 15.
2. “Radical Painters Showing Their Work,” Toronto Mail and Empire, March 5, 1927, quoted in Tom Smart, Peter Clapham Sheppard: His Life and Work (Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books, 2018), 153.
Estimate: $30,000 - $50,000
All prices are in Canadian Dollars
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